Sam Hamill Interview
"This is where I come to hide," says Sam Hamill as he pulls the car into the grove of fir and cedar surrounding the house and studio he built himself. But he is not hiding. He has scheduled his Progressive interview hard upon his return from New York City, where, during a blizzard, he and poets Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, Martín Espada, and others read to a large and enthusiastic audience at Lincoln Center.
It is a late February day near Port Townsend, Washington, and Hamill has had little chance to retreat from public attention since mid-January, when he received a note from Laura Bush requesting his presence at a White House symposium on Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman.
Hamill responded with an e-mail to friends. It read, in part: "When I picked up my mail and saw the letter marked 'The White House,' I felt no joy. Rather, I was overcome by a kind of nausea. . . . Only the day before I had read a lengthy report on the President's proposed 'Shock and Awe' attack on Iraq, calling for saturation bombing that would be like the firebombing of Dresden or Tokyo, killing countless innocent civilians. The only legitimate response to such a morally bankrupt and unconscionable idea is to reconstitute a Poets Against the War movement like the one organized to speak out against the war in Vietnam." Hamill called upon all poets "to speak up for the conscience of our country" by submitting poems for "an anthology of protest.
"Within thirty-six hours, the submissions of poems to Hamill's project had overwhelmed his e-mail account. The First Lady heard of the poets' plans and canceled the symposium.
On February 12, the day the White House symposium was supposed to happen, poets participated in more than 135 readings and events around the country denouncing Bush's war moves against Iraq. By that date, Hamill's new web site (www.poetsagainstthewar.org) had published more than 6,000 poems.
At first glance, Hamill might seem a surprising person to cause an uproar. The esteemed editor, translator, essayist, and poet is, by his own admission, reclusive. But his life of contemplation and dedication to poetry prepared him more than adequately for his confrontation with the U.S. government.
Among many other things, he is the translator of Lu Chi's Wen Fu: The Art of Writing, a book that stresses the importance of calling things by their right name, a Confucian idea that applies as much to political rulers as it does to emotional states or descriptions of the natural world.
Hamill is a founding editor of Copper Canyon Press, which is known for its independence, as well as for its accurate and graceful translations. The Copper Canyon list includes such poets as Olga Broumas, Hayden Carruth, Cyrus Cassells, Odysseas Elytis, Carolyn Kizer, Thomas McGrath, Cesare Pavese, Kenneth Rexroth, and Eleanor Wilner.
An avowed pacifist, Hamill opens his book A Poet's Work with a quote from the Albert Camus essay "Neither Victims nor Executioners," which he says changed his life. "All I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice," Camus writes. "After that, we can distinguish those who accept the consequences of being murderers themselves or the accomplices of murderers, and those who refuse to do so with all their force and being."
Question: Why did your call for a new Poets Against the War movement elicit such support?
Sam Hamill: It was almost as if they were waiting breathlessly for someone to step forward and say, "Enough is enough." We became a chorus. Last week, the poems were coming in at one per minute. We have twenty-five editors downloading and formatting poems. We're well over 11,000 poems already, and we'll publish an anthology of probably about 225 pages of theoretically the best.
Q: Who inspired you to do this?
Hamill: The spirit of Denise Levertov, and listening to Galway Kinnell and Philip Levine and Etheridge Knight and June Jordan during the 1960s. That made me decide when I received the invitation to the White House that I simply couldn't just say no thank you and pretend that it was OK.
Poets should speak out against what we see as the assault against our Constitution and the warmongering that's going on. I'm perfectly willing to lay down my life for my Constitution, but I am not willing to take a life for it or any other reason because I think killing people is counterproductive.
I'm basically a poetry scholar, and I'm happier here in my studio with my row of Chinese dictionaries than I am, frankly, at Lincoln Center, although it was one of those lifetime moments, as they say.
Q: Can you describe what the Poets Against the War movement was like during Vietnam?
Hamill: Well, I can remember, I think it was 1967, sitting in the First Unitarian Church in Isla Vista, Santa Barbara, and seeing Phil Levine come out on the little stage. He sat on the edge and said, "You know, sometimes it's hard not to hate my country for the way I feel, at times, but I won't let that happen." And then he read, "They Feed They Lion," this incredibly powerful, incantatory poem that was inspired in part by the burning of Detroit in 1967 and the riots that followed. And then Galway Kinnell came out with that wonderful big, breathy, hollow voice of his and read, for the first time in public, "The Bear." That poem impressed me so much that I memorized it. I used it for years when I taught in prisons. It's a powerful extended metaphor for what the writing life is really all about. It's a uniquely powerful poem about self-transformation, and that's what we're asking, really, beyond even our objection to the war. We're asking people to look at themselves and think about what might be possible with a little self-transformation.
Each of us as poets, as decent suffering human beings, has to find a way to run our lives that is compassionate toward one another and toward our environment. Because if we don't, we are going to be committing suicide at a very large level. We're certainly not perfect, and we're not probably even better than anybody else, except that perhaps we are given to certain kinds of contemplation that provide a valuable balance to the knee-jerk reactionary behavior of most of our newspapers and political leaders. Poets are great doubters.
What poetry does above all else is develop sensibility. And that's what makes poetry so dangerous. That's why poetry is so good at undermining governments and so bad at building them. There's nothing harder to organize than a group of poets.
The only thing we all agree on, virtually every poet in this country, is that this Administration is really frightening, and we want something done about it.
Bush is using language that's a mirror image of the language of Osama bin Laden when he says, "We have God on our side. This is the struggle of good against evil." Isn't that exactly what bin Laden said? Bush the born-again Christian, bin Laden the born-again Muslim, and they're both convinced that they have God on their side, and they're both willing to kill countless numbers of innocent people to assert their rightness. Very dangerous, very dangerous.
Q: You've described yourself as anti-religious.
Hamill: Yes, yes. I am anti-religious.
Q: And why is that?
Hamill: Most of the ugly wars in history have been wars of religion. And there's nothing more dangerous than someone with religious certitude who creates consequences in the world that to me are simply inexcusable.
Q: You seem to be contrasting religious certitude with what you said about poets as doubters. Is that right?
Hamill: Yes. Well, we poets don't tend to be certain a lot. Much of our art is made out of our own uncertainty. And there is a not-knowingness, I think, that leads us back to suffering humanity with a more compassionate vision than most of our politicians have.
Q: In your essays, you write that poetry saved your life. I was wondering if you could explain what you mean.
Hamill: I was a violent, self-destructive teenager, who was adopted right at the end of World War II. I was lied to and abused by my parents. I hated life in Utah. I resented the Mormon Church, its sense of superiority and its certitude. I escaped through the Beat writers and discovered poetry and have devoted my entire life to the practice of poetry in varying ways. Poetry gave me a reason for being. And I'm not exaggerating when I say that. My ethics, my sense of morality, my work ethic, my sense of compassion for suffering humanity, all of that comes directly out of the practice of poetry, as does my Buddhist practice. Poetry is a very important element in the history of Buddhism in general and in Zen in particular. It was really Zen that motivated me to change the way I perceive the world.
It's not, I'm a poet who practices Zen. And it's not, I'm somebody who practices Zen who writes poetry. There's no separation for me. Sometimes people come up and they get infatuated with some little brief imagistic poem or something, and they say, "Oh, I really like your Zen poems." And I say, "Which ones are not Zen poems?"
Poetry teaches us things that cannot be learned in prose, such as certain kinds of irony or the importance of the unsaid. The most important element of any poem is the part that is left unsaid. So the poetry frames the experience that lies beyond naming.
Q: Did you have a political awakening, or have you always felt the way you do?
Hamill: I would say that my great political awakening was really born on Okinawa, reading Albert Camus: the "Neither Victims nor Executioners" essay and The Rebel. I was an eighteen-year-old kid. I hated myself. I hated my life. I thought nobody wanted me. All I'd ever heard my entire life in my family was, "Nobody wanted you, and we took you in." When you get that into your head at a tender age, you really feel like you are an unlovable human being, and then you behave like one. That's exactly what I had done. It took me many years to deal with my own violence and find my own niche.
Kenneth Rexroth took me under his wing for a brief period. I was fifteen years old, and I was smoking a lot of heroin and trying to be cool, man, and I really loved poetry. And Kenneth convinced me that destroying myself was not really the best possible solution, and that I needed to look at the world's literature, and not just my own life, in order to be hip, if you will. So he had a huge influence on what became of me thereafter.
I got interested in Zen when I was a teenage beatnik on the streets of San Francisco. And it was my interest in Zen, in part, that got me into the Marine Corps, because that was a ticket to Asia. So I spent a couple of years on Okinawa and began reading and thinking about how I wanted to go about conducting my life.
Q: I looked back at your translation of Lu Chi's Wen Fu: The Art of Writing. You make the observation that he lived in some ways a dangerous life by writing and naming things. What is the position of today's American poets in relation to that life?
Hamill: Well, I think a lot of American poets are swimming-pool Soviets. A lot of them have taken the comfortable, self-protective route too often. I know that I certainly have. That's easy to do. It's difficult to put your own bare ass out on the limb every time you sit down to write a poem. But that's really sort of the ideal. Because if we don't discover something about ourselves and our world in the making of a poem, chances are it's not going to be a very good poem. So what I'm saying is that a lot of our best poets could be better poets if they wrote less and risked more in what they do.
That said, I'll say that this is probably the best time for poetry since the T'ang dynasty. All the rest of the world is going to school on American poetry in the twentieth century, from Ezra Pound to W. S. Merwin, and for very good reason. We have soaked up influence in the last century like a sponge. It's cross-pollination, first law of biology, that the more variety you have the more health you have.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about translation as a discipline?
Hamill: One of the things I love about translation is it obliterates the self. When I'm trying to figure out what Tu Fu has to say, I have to kind of impersonate Tu Fu. I have to take on, if you will, his voice and his skin in English, and I have to try to get as deeply into the poem as possible. I'm not trying to make an equivalent poem in English, which can't be done because our language can't accommodate the kind of metaphors within metaphors the Chinese written language can, and often does, contain. For instance, on the mat outside my door, you can read that as two characters: a roof and a woman under it. If you combine those two characters, that's the character for harmony or for peace. If you put that same roof out there, and put two women under it, you get the character for disharmony. That's a visual linguistic pun. Well, it's hard for us to do anything equivalent like that in our language, so what I have to do is find other ways of putting the turn on this line or the edge on that image. You can't just do a word-for-word because they don't exist. We don't have a word for two women under one roof. So you have to find other ways of making it literary and of being true to the sensibility, if you will, of the original, as much as possible.
The oldest cliché in the world is about "what's lost in translation," but you don't very often read much intelligent about what's gained by translation, and the answer is everything. Our language is a compendium of translation.
Q: What is the proper role of poetry in our society?
Hamill: That's one of those questions that would just love to have a pat answer. You know, poetry's job is to make us feel good. Poetry exists to allow us to express our innermost feelings. There isn't one role for poetry in society. There are many roles for poetry. I wrote a poem to seduce my wife. I wrote a poem when I asked her to marry me. Poetry got me laid. Poetry got me married. I wrote a number of poems about Kah Tai lagoon, when Safeway was building that huge, ugly store down there where I used to love to watch the birds nest. That political poem, or environmental poem, was unsuccessful because Safeway built there anyway. And yet the poem has something to say today, as it did then. And I speak here only of my own poems. The agenda for every poet has to be different because most of us write from direct human experience in the world.
It would be nice if all the Republicans could put poetry in a little box and put the box under the bed and sit on it, but they can't. And neither can the left insist that poetry must do this or must do that. I've heard a lot of people quoting Auden famously that "poetry makes nothing happen," but none of the people who were quoting it seemed to have understood the irony of what he was saying. If you think for one second that Auden believed that poetry makes nothing happen in a real, literal way, then you're a damn fool.
Q: What do you say to members of the rightwing media who are saying that the poets organizing against the war are behaving badly or that they're looking foolish?
Hamill: I haven't seen any poet in this country behave nearly as rudely as Newt Gingrich or Bill O'Reilly. I'm not asking these people to approve of everyone's manners. I don't feel obliged to defend the manners of every poet who submits a poem to my web site. That's not my job. My job is to provide them with an opportunity to speak from the heart. If there's not much in the heart and if the mouth is running wild, that's not my problem. Of course, there are some people who behave rudely. Allen Ginsberg used to like to get up in public and take his clothes off. I don't do that, but I liked Allen Ginsberg. He was a nice guy [laughter].
When these idiot rightwingers start complaining about poetry being political, I'm fond of reciting Sappho to them, who excluded men from her world. Why does she exclude them? Mostly because of their warmongering.
Q: Is there a particular bit of Sappho you quote?
Hamill: There's a fragment that goes, "Some say the most beautiful thing in the world is a great cavalry riding down over the hill. / Others say it's a vast infantry on the march. / But I say the most beautiful thing is the beloved." How political can you get?
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